Last week I wrote that I didn’t care for the horror genre and, while that is true, every rule has its exception. And for me, that’s zombies. I really like zombies! From "The Walking Dead" (I made it 7 seasons before giving up on the writing) to "World War Z", and especially the lighter fare like "Shaun of the Dead" and "Zombieland", I like 'em! Ripe with metaphor and structurally more of a disaster story than pure horror, zombie tales scratch a very specific itch, so I knew I had to make room for this one.
George Romero’s "Night of the Living Dead" is the granddaddy of all zombie films. Though incredibly simple (girl runs from undead to farmhouse, meets with others who barricade the structure, and fight with each other on how to best outlast the growing danger), the film draws its strength from the unfair advantage of getting to set the rules on zombies. The characters and the original audience didn’t know what they were dealing with and learned about the undead through the gradual reveals of character testimonials, glimpses from the radio and TV, and most tragically, from fatal mistakes. Even knowing the rules of zombies (as the rules established by Romero mostly continue to this day, intact) it was exciting to watch the story gradually unfold.
At the time, critics interpreted the insatiable undead hoard as a criticism of capitalism; the ignorance and anxiety of the living as a critique of America’s involvement in Vietnam. But for me, what stuck with me the most was the film’s handling of race, radical in 1968 and relevant to this day. Allegedly, Romero didn’t go looking for an African American lead and Duane Jones just auditioned the best, but the brilliance of the choice was apparent immediately. From young, white Barbara’s hesitation to trusting and accepting Ben’s help (in the face of her imminent doom, mind you), to Harry Cooper’s rejection of Ben’s leadership, and finally, to the redneck posse conclusion of the film, this movie took a story about distrust and fear and turned it to 11 with the stain of American racism.
Unbeknownst to me, I coincidentally scheduled this screening on the week of the film’s 50th anniversary! Reflecting on this, I’m delighted by how much it holds up. While the zombies weren’t made with expensive effects (the film used chocolate syrup for blood) and their occasional energy or grasp of tools was dubious, I was reminded that even genre films hold up when anchored by a good story. If you like the zombie genre and somehow managed to miss this one, you need to check out it!